For a number of years in the 1960s my missionary father-in-law sponsored a small program for theological students of Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa. His primary purpose was to provide room and board for 30 young men who had no money and no scholarship support for the summer months. The secondary purpose was to provide instruction in Bible and theology. The tertiary purpose was to provide American Presbyterians with an unpaid Christian evangelistic opportunity overseas.
In 1969 my family traveled to Ethiopia and our baby, Jonathan, took his first step on the African continent. That summer Margaret and I constituted the entire faculty of the summer institute. However, after a week on the job I decided that a grander title would provide a useful boost for my self-esteem. I explained to Margaret the advantages she would derive from being the entire faculty and asked if she would vote for my appointment as dean. The look she gave me I had seen many times before and have seen many times since. As always (and this is the secret of our long and happy marriage) if she does not say, “No,” I assume she means “Yes.” In the midst of acclimation to Abyssinia, I was elected by acclamation in Abyssinia.
I enjoyed my deanship because it involved a silly distinction and no additional work. In fact, being dean of a one-person faculty so tickled my sense of the absurd that I later included the honor on an application submitted for a job I really did not want. I thought someone might ask about the entry: “Dean of the Summer Theological Institute, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1969.” The question would give me an opportunity to discuss the role and value of whimsy in human life, which would ensure that I not be offered the job. Since then my several weeks of deanery has taken on a small and random life of its own in that it occasionally reappears when I am introduced. I don’t suppose my African deanship compares with St. Augustine’s African bishopric, but to hear it solemnly cited reanimates my sense of the ridiculous in application to myself and requires stifling a chortle that puts me in an exceptionally good mood for whatever follows.
Thirty years later Margaret and I returned to Ethiopia to visit that first-step African baby who was finishing his missionary service as a professor of physics at the renamed Addis Ababa University. For him the Great Commission “Go therefore” (Matthew 28:19) was translated into “Come back.” By then Jonathan and Sara spoke Amharic well enough to allow us to go way off the usual tourist roads.
Our conveyance came about this way. Some years earlier Jonathan had determined to add to the Presbyterian flock by sneaking up on the Lutheran fold and capturing the fairest of their Norwegian lambs. I suppose our family should feel a bit sheepish, but I will not pull the wool over your eyes. I think it would be a mutton-headed son who could not effect such a rescue. If that is stealing from one fold to another, what would ewe do?
At the conclusion of the wedding service as the officiating ministers watched the new bride and groom recessing, the Rev. Gunderson, representing The Formula of Concord and father of the bride, leaned over to the Rev. Partee, representing The Book of Confessions and father to the groom, and said, “I hope this mixed marriage will work.” The truth is pretty Lutherans make wonderful Presbyterians.
For their years in Addis Ababa, Jonathan and Sara expected to get around on public transportation, which is very inexpensive. However, while blue-eyed blondes stand out everywhere in the world, they are especially noticeable in Africa. Waiting on street corners for buses and sometimes late at night Sara was getting punched by both men and women. Once, walking with Jonathan, a well-dressed woman doubled her fist and hit Sara. This gratuitous violence was inexplicable among the noble and gentle Ethiopians. Jonathan was, of course, beside himself in being unable to protect his wife.
Ethiopia has no domestic automobile industry so imported cars cost triple the U.S. price. In no way could recent university graduates afford a new one. Even old cars are expensive. Addis Ababa has more foreign embassies than any city in the world (except for Washington, D.C.). Diplomats bring cars from their home countries and leave them in Ethiopia when their term is over. 1940s Cadillacs and ancient Mercedes still ply the streets in Addis. At one time France was strongly allied with Ethiopia, and much of the city’s commerce still moves around in rickety old trucks that proclaim on the windshields: “Peugeot. Number One in Africa.” Some Anglophiles swear by Britain’s Land Rover but everyone else knows that only the Toyota Land Cruiser can consistently withstand the punishing African roads. A few miles outside the capital city, a Ferrari is completely worthless.
When Sara’s plight became known, one of the great Pittsburgh churches took a special offering for her. With this gift Jonathan was able to buy a very-much-used 1986 short-wheel base, four cylinder, diesel Toyota Land Cruiser II. It was not much to look at. The interior was tattered and the paint chipped by stones and scraped by thorns. But the engine was strong and the suspension taut. With a snorkel venting above the roof, a Land Cruiser will take you under water through a small but fast flowing river — an experience I am not eager to repeat.
During our short visit we took pictures of the world famous rock churches of Lalibela, the stele of Axum, the palaces at Gondar, the Blue Nile source and the rare and endangered Abyssinian wolf (or Simean fox). If it is not immediately convenient for you to invite us over to your house for coffee and to show our slides, you may see some of them at http://www.partee.net/mission.html. The coffee we prefer is Yirgacheffe from the beautiful Ethiopian highlands. Please make a note of it.